The Attachment System — thoughts over coffee

John Bowlby, “the father of attachment theory,” was a British psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who studied many British orphans after WWII.  He lost a great deal of face in his professional circles when he observed — counter to popular assumption — that “attachment” is not primarily about love.  He had to conclude that attachment was an infant survival mechanism.  The field has gradually come around to see what he meant.

Bowlby observed that most infants are born with an inherent set of skills — crying, waving, cooing, smiling, etc. — which are designed to attract and hold the attention of a caring adult.  The adult will hopefully organize both of them to provide the infant with nurture — the baby’s only hope of survival.

More recently Dan Hughes and Jon Baylin proposed that the infant’s attachment system actually triggers a complementary “caretaking system” in adults.  That is, when an infant cries, waves, coos and smiles, we adults are hardwired to respond — perhaps waving back while saying, “Hey cute baby!  Are you talking to ME?”  In this and many other ways a feedback loop is established which keeps infant and adult connected at an emotional level, long before babies understand language.

That caretaking system supports most adults to be ‘good enough’ parents to most children without having to think it through logically.  The hope for every child is that they experience enough safety and enough help with their overwhelming feelings that they gain trust and confidence in their adult caretaker — their ‘attachment figure’.  With such a “secure attachment” the child’s anxiety about survival is low.  They will rarely fear catastrophic abandonment, even in stressful situations.

When kids have a secure attachment, the cognitive-behavioral approaches to behavior and therapy tend to work more easily.  Phelan’s 1-2-3 Magic, for instance, can engage a child at the level of cognitive intellect, because that child is NOT distracted by and preoccupied with deep, unresolved anxiety about some unmet early need for connection to a safe caretaker.  Less secure children may try to force relationship reassurance first.  This is probably why the question of whether or not ‘the teacher likes me’ is a major variable in elementary school performance.

Seven illustrations at the following site attempt to show how early parenting can convey a sense of security and safety to an infant, using preverbal cues such as closeness, responsive facial and voice expressions, a kind and soothing tone, and eye contact.  I hope they are helpful.  (And I do intend to learn to ‘insert links’ before another decade passes.)

Intersubjectivity Without Words by Robert Spottswood


What are the four attachment styles of children? 1978 and 1986

The perplexing relational behavior of alienated children was first demystified by the insightful research of Mary Ainsworth.  Her brilliant Strange Situation study findings were published in 1978 and remain relevant today.  She correctly identified the various responses of different toddlers upon seeing their parent walk out of a room and then return.  Additionally a strange woman simply came in, sat, and went out — at two specific times.

Ainsworth identified three childhood attachment styles, eventually called Secure, Avoidant, and Ambivalent.  Her explanations were later enhanced by Mary Main (1986), who, with her assistant Judith Solomon, recognized that a leftover, chaotic fourth group (10%) had developed no patterns to make sense of themselves or their world: “Disorganized” style.

Knowing the four attachment styles of children does not guarantee an emotional connection — a quick fix.  But it does provide a useful explanation of what may be going on in the child’s head — their inner life of thoughts and feelings.  This in turn lets us parents and helpers feel accurate empathy for the struggling child’s difficult inner life.  (There is empathy, and there is accurate empathy.)  It also allows us to set limits and name our expectations with some degree of confidence that we are doing no harm.  We now know how to understand and repair the child’s shame when it becomes triggered.  The combination of accurate empathy plus safe limit-setting gradually unlocks emotional doors to trusting.  Still, the path to close, intersubjective connection with a child may be easier for some adults than for others.